Dance-music genres have inspired musical-instrument manufacturers to develop one-stop solutions for making music. Two new products from E-mu, the MP-7 and XL-7 Command Stations, integrate sampled pitched and percussive sound sources, a subtractive-synth engine, a multitrack sequencer, a multichannel arpeggiator, touch-sensitive rubber trigger pads, assignable knobs, and a ribbon controller to yield formidable all-in-one workstations.
I reviewed the two Command Stations in tandem because the only difference between them is their sound sets. The MP-7 is targeted at urban modes, and the XL-7 at electronic dance.
CATCH SOMEONE'S EYE
The first thing you'll notice about the Command Stations is that the MP-7 is done up in purples and the XL-7 is bright yellow (see Figs. 1 and 2). Both are tabletop models with bold graphics splashed across the front panel. You can remove the molded side panels to facilitate rackmounting.
In addition to a copious number of knobs and switches, the front panel hosts a headphone jack and a BNC connector for a 12 VDC gooseneck lamp. Connections for MIDI In, two MIDI Outs (for 32 addressable channels), USB, S/PDIF, and E-mu's standard array of three ¼-inch TRS stereo pairs (one master and two subs) are on the rear panel (see Fig. 3). Rear-panel connections are housed under either unit's protruding back lip in such a way that when the unit is rackmounted, it can be a tight fit to insert ¼-inch plugs.
In many ways, the MP-7 and XL-7 are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They're built around the same synth engine as the Proteus 2000 and many of Emu's other derivative modules. The MP-7 features the sound set from the Mo'Phatt ROM; the XL-7 incorporates the Xtreme Lead-1 sound ROM. Both machines have three additional sockets for additional 16 MB or 32 MB sound ROMs from E-mu, which include Techno Synth, Sounds of the ZR, Protozoa, Orchestral Sessions, Definitive B3, and Siedlaczek Orchestra. E-mu E4 owners can also burn custom sound sets onto flash SIMMs and insert them into the sockets.
For anyone who's not familiar with the Proteus 2000 engine, here's a brief overview (see the September 1999 issue for a review). Samples based in ROM are processed through a formidable 128-note polyphonic subtractive-synth engine that includes a filter, an amplifier, three envelopes, and two LFOs. Emu's proprietary Z-Plane filter offers 50 filter types ranging from 2nd to 12th order and can morph between two filter setups during the course of an event. Possibilities beyond the standard fare of lowpass filtering include highpass, bandpass, swept EQ, and formants. Matrix modulation lets you connect as many as 24 virtual patch cords from any of 37 modulation sources to any of 41 destinations.
The Proteus 2000 architecture features two effects engines, one offering 44 reverbs and reverb-and-delay combinations and the other serving up 32 assorted effects, including delays, flange, chorus, and distortion. Four buses are available for routing the effects. The dual functionality of the submix outputs extends the effects buses to external gear. The Proteus engine also provides 12 user-definable alternate tunings and extensive MIDI implementation.
E-mu has utilized the multichannel arpeggiator technology pioneered in the Audity 2000 (see the November 1998 issue for a review). The Command Stations can play 32 separate arpeggios simultaneously, each on a different channel and with a different sound. The arpeggiators run through the notes of a held chord in Standard mode or trigger preprogrammed note patterns that serve as minisequences. Triggers can reside in sequencer Patterns, or you can assign them to front-panel buttons for live performance. Each unit contains 300 factory arpeggiator patterns and 100 user locations. All arpeggiators sync to the same internal or external master clock as the sequencer, yielding some pretty wild possibilities.
MP-7 and XL-7 Presets can contain as many as four layers that employ the full architecture as well as links to two other Presets. With an additional 12 patch cords per Preset, the potential result is a massive 12-layer sound including keyboard or Velocity splits. You can route Presets to the main stereo outputs or one of the two submix pairs.
Stock units offer 512 factory Presets and 512 user-programmable Preset locations. The number of ROM (factory) Presets increases dramatically with the addition of other sound sets, because each comes with its own Presets. A 32 MB card has 512 factory Presets, for example.
Although the synth engine isn't new, the inclusion of the control surface and a sequencer take it to greater heights. While you can connect an external MIDI controller to enter notes into the MP-7 and XL-7, you can also use one octave of rubber pads (each approximately one-inch square) for basic input. The Pressure- and Velocity-sensitive pads provide an ideal vehicle for auditioning and entering drum sounds. Transposition switches place the 13 pads anywhere within a seven-octave range. An adjacent ribbon controller called the Touchstrip, though assigned to pitch by default, can serve as a source for any modulation destination.
The functionality of many of the other controls and the information in the LCD depend on the settings in the Mode/View and Edit sections. The Default view shows the transport status, bar and beat, Pattern length, Song number and name, and selected track (for editing and live performance). The Preset view takes you to a standard Proteus-family display for selecting tracks, channels, and their associated parameters such as volume and pan. The Mix view contains pages with graphics representing volume or pan.
Similarly, a variety of buttons determine what you're editing (Song, Pattern, or Preset) and provide access to pages representing functional groupings such as controllers or MIDI. Forward and back cursor buttons determine what parameter on the LCD is under the Data knob's control. Dedicated Track/Channel buttons advance and decrement through their respective parameters, providing a welcome shortcut that eliminates the need to move the cursor to a parameter to alter its value.
On the control surface's left side, a grid of 16 knobs serves one of four functions depending on the selected mode. Their default mode is Quick Edit, which offers instant access to common predefined parameters such as filter cutoff, filter resonance, and ADSR segments. Though the knobs are hardwired, Program mode lets you assign them to multiple parameters on multiple channels. The assignments can be stored in any of 63 user-defined Multi setups that might apply to a given Song or performance. In Mix view, the knobs also serve as Volume or Pan controls.
Like the knobs, 16 buttons on the control surface's right side serve various functions depending on the mode. By default, they act as Track Enable and Mute buttons for the 16-track sequencer, allowing easy access for the type of live mixing that is popular with DJ-style performances. Current track-mute settings are saved with Patterns, making it easy to create variations on a theme to use in Song arrangements.
The 16 buttons also serve as event triggers to augment the octave of rubber pads during live performance. You can program each with an associated note, Velocity, and an internal or external MIDI channel. The option to latch an event is great for triggering things such as ambient drones and Presets with arpeggios. You can save the button assignments in Multi setups as you can the knob assignments. When editing Presets, each button corresponds to a frequently accessed function page such as the one for the filter or amplifier. As you'll see shortly, the buttons also represent steps when you're sequencing.
The 16-track sequencer features Pattern and Song modes. In Pattern mode, each track number has a one-to-one correspondence to the MIDI channel number. The Track/Channel increment and decrement buttons are handy because you can quickly determine which track you're editing or performing. You can also set each track's output to play an internal sound source, an external MIDI source, or both.
While one Pattern or Song plays, you can dial up the next one you want to hear, though you have to hit Enter to lock it in to play at the end of the current passage. Tons of factory Patterns are included, providing plenty of inspiration right out of the box. There's so much quality and diversity that purchasers will likely find themselves initially editing the factory offerings rather than starting from scratch. Factory Patterns are uniformly constructed in that kick is always on track 1, snare on track 2, and so on.
In Pattern mode, you can switch between real-time, step-time, and grid recording and editing on the fly with no break in your creative flow. Similarly, you can switch tracks while recording to build up parts without ever stopping the groove. You can also drop in and out of Record mode while continuing playback, making it easy to audition musical ideas before committing to them.
Grid mode allows programming in the style pioneered on the old Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines. The 16 multifunction buttons represent steps in the sequence. In longer or higher-resolution Patterns, they represent the first block of 16 steps, then switch to represent the next 16, and so forth. You can record multiple sounds on any track, though it's easier to keep things organized if you use a separate track for each sound.
Like grid recording, real-time recording defaults to looping for easy overdubs. Options such as metronome, count off, and quantization make real-time recording a no-brainer. You can also quantize after recording.
Step mode is easy to use, as well. The LCD shows the bar:beat:tick for the current step and provides control over step resolution and gate. At any point, you can switch the autoincrement function on or off, providing the ability to enter chords and Control Change messages.
In addition to establishing a chain of Patterns, Song mode has a multichannel track that runs the entire length of the Song. It's useful for mixing and for seamless performances that cross Pattern boundaries.
The MP-7 and XL-7 ship with a Mac/PC CD-ROM containing E-mu's E-Loader software. With a two-way USB or MIDI connection between the Command Station and a computer, E-Loader lets you retrieve the Pattern and Song lists for easier display. You can also use it to send and receive the actual Pattern and Song data; that's convenient, as the units don't have any other storage methods. Mysteriously, E-Loader does not do the same for Presets and other information, but E-mu says a fix is forthcoming. Meanwhile, you must rely on SysEx or a librarian to accomplish that task.
E-Loader is also the way to transfer OS updates from Emu's Web site into the Command Stations. E-Loader has other features, including a graphic grid display of 16-channel MIDI note data received and a text display of all MIDI data received.
The CD-ROM includes a PDF version of the manual, thus providing the best of both worlds. Each unit ships with a 296-page printed manual, but PDFs are handy for searches and for portability.
AT YOUR COMMAND
The MP-7 and XL-7 blur the line between performance instruments and portable recording studios. Some of the technology in either unit is repackaged (you could say proven), but E-mu has infused both with goodies that result in powerful, playable groove boxes.
Most pattern-based musicians should find inspiration in the numerous high-quality sounds and Patterns. The Proteus 2000 synth engine is robust enough to keep even the most serious programmer busy for years. The onboard sequencer is powerful, flexible, and easy to master, and the multichannel arpeggiators open new musical vistas. The combination of the rubber pads, Touchstrip, 16 knobs, and 16 buttons is ideal for live performance, whether you're using one of the Command Stations alone or for triggering external gear.
I have few qualms with the MP-7 and XL-7. Almost all that is missing are sampling capabilities and removable storage — features that would add to the price. For the money, E-mu has a pair of winners for the dance crowd on its hands.
Jeff Burgeris a songwriter and producer based in Sedona, Arizona.
MP-7 and XL-7 Specifications
Sound Enginesample playbackData Encoding44.1 kHz, 16-bit linear; 24-bit DACsReal-Time Data Entry(13) Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive pads; (16) knobs; (2) footswitches; (4) button switches; (16) trigger switches; (1) ribbon controllerPolyphony128 notesMultitimbral Parts(32) internal; (32) MIDIPresets(512) RAM; (512) ROM (expandable via SIMMs)Waveform ROM32 MB; expandable to 128 MBTracks(16) Pattern tracks with (16) MIDI channels per track; (1) Song track with (16) MIDI channelsSequencer Patterns(1,024) RAMSequencer Resolution384 ppqnInternal Sequencer Storage300,000 notes maximumSongs(512) maximum; SMF importArpeggiator32-channel; (100) RAM patterns; (300) ROM patternsEffects(2) 24-bit processors; (60) algorithmsDisplays(1) 2 × 24-character backlit LCD; (1) 4-digit LEDAnalog-Audio I/O(6) unbalanced ¼" TRS outputs; (4) unbalanced ¼" TS aux returns; (1) ¼" stereo headphone outputDigital-Audio I/O(1) S/PDIF OutMIDI Ports(1) In, (2) Out/ThruAdditional Ports(2) ¼" TS footswitch; (1) 12 VDC gooseneck lamp; (1) USBExpansion Slots(3) SIMM socketsDimensions18.60" (W) × 5.25" (H) × 10.50" (D)Weight17 lb.
MP-7 and XL-7 Command Stations
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Large set of inspiring factory sounds and Patterns. Powerful Proteus synth engine. Numerous live-performance controls. Multichannel arpeggiator. Fairly intuitive user interface. Expandable ROM. Updatable OS.
CONS: No onboard sampling or removable storage.